Brown Girl Dreaming

brown girl dreamingBrown Girl Dreaming is only the second book I’ve read by Jacqueline Woodson. (The first, her spectacular picture book Show Way, is about seven generations of the women of an African-American family, from slavery through civil rights, and the instructions they pass on through a family quilt.) This book, told entirely in verse, is Woodson’s autobiography, from her birth to the time she’s about twelve. It’s tender and revealing, a portrait not only of Woodson herself but of her family and of her environment in the 1960s and ’70s as she is growing up in South Carolina and New York.

Jackie is born in Ohio and named after her father, Jack. (He actually wanted her just to be named Jack, but her mother, Mary Ann, refused, and made sure “Jacqueline” was put on the birth certificate.) She spends her first years in Ohio, but Mary Ann makes several trips to Greenville, South Carolina to visit her parents. Jack can’t see why she would go south, where Jim Crow is still alive and well, and they fight. Eventually, the couple splits, and Mary Ann and the three children — Hope, Odella, and Jackie — move south to live with Grandpa Gunnar and Grandma Georgiana.

Jackie grows to love the south, though the shadow of segregation is on everything they do, and the children always feel like outsiders because of their northern ways of talking and behaving. She helps her grandfather in the garden and her grandmother in the kitchen, and learns how much she’s loved. She goes several times a week to Kingdom Hall, where the Jehovah’s Witnesses gather. She watches as their neighbors begin to talk about marches and boycotts and sit-ins, and how to change their world.

Eventually, Mary Ann moves to New York, and brings the children with her (and there is a new baby brother, Roman, in the picture as well.) They move in with Mary Ann’s sister Caroline (Aunt Kay). In New York, Jackie blossoms. She meets a lifelong best friend, Maria, whose Puerto Rican family is like a second family for her. She has encouraging teachers who let her know that she doesn’t have to be in the shadow of Odella’s brilliance all her life — she can have her own gifts. And she learns about the Black Panthers, and Angela Davis, and revolution.

Woodson does an outstanding job in this memoir of weaving the events of her childhood — her relationship with her grandfather, her days at school, her questions about God — with the events of the world around her. It’s so interesting to see what a child notices: what are the adults talking about? Who’s being mean to Mom and Grandma? What does it mean to a kid, to have rights, or to start a revolution?

It’s also really interesting to watch Woodson watching herself become a writer. She struggled with reading and wasn’t as “smart” as her academically-gifted older sister. But ever since she could hold a pencil, she loved to write: forming letters on the page gave her a satisfaction nothing else could. And she was always a storyteller. I saw a dragon. Charlie turned green today. Telling things as they were, or never were, or as they could be. Her grandfather loved to hear her, and as he grew ill toward the end of his life, listened to her stories every day. You can see the tenderness there, as she watches the shape of that part of her life.

Weirdly, this is the second young adult book in verse I’ve read in a couple of months, and it really worked. I especially liked the series of haiku about listening. This is a beautiful book, and it makes me want to read more by Woodson.



Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry | 3 Comments

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

consider the lobsterSeveral years ago, I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I enjoyed it, mostly, but found it was too much of a good thing. The sort of good thing where once you’ve had too much of it, you feel a little sick and stop liking it altogether. Like rich chocolate mousse. It’s only good in small doses once in a while.

So although reading Infinite Jest convinced me that I’d never be a DFW acolyte, it also convinced me that I’d probably enjoy his essays. And know I’ve finally gotten around to confirming that suspicion!

The essays in Consider the Lobster cover a range of topics. The title essay, and probably the best of the bunch, is ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Festival but turns into a piece on cooking and eating lobsters, the ethics of eating animals, and what it means for an animal to feel pain. It’s not, as you might imagine, a think piece on why or why not to become a vegetarian. Wallace draws no conclusions and doesn’t seem interested in doing so. He’s just putting the ideas out there.

When I say Wallace is putting ideas out there, however, I don’t want to give the impression that he’s just musing on paper, although his discursive style, with footnotes inside footnotes, can give the effect of someone just following a train of thought. He looks into the raised by his experiences, whether at a lobster festival or a talk radio station or following a political campaign.

Most of these essays were writing in the late 1990s, and two of them focus on political happenings that still resonate today. In “Up, Simba,” Wallace follows the John McCain political campaign for a week. These were the days of McCain’s “Straight Talk Express.” (This was also the only time I ever voted in a Republican primary. Virginia doesn’t register by party and has open primaries, and I was intrigued enough by McCain to want him to stay in the race, even though I liked Al Gore a lot and probably would still have ultimately voted for him if McCain had won.)

As Wallace follows the campaign, he ponders the sincerity of McCain’s outsider message (especially coming from an insider) and watches as the previously amiable race between McCain and Bush turned negative. The essay is longer that it needs to be—it’s actually the complete and uncut version of an article Wallace originally wrote for Rolling Stone. But the length does give a sense of the tedium of a campaign, and there are some good insights here, including this applause-worthy line:

By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting; you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

Similarly timely is the final essay, “Host,” a profile of conservative talk radio personality John Ziegler. Here, Wallace picks apart how conservatives are taking over talk radio and what constitutes a winning talk radio personality. This essay is probably most well known, however, for its unconventional format. Instead of footnotes, Wallace inserts his explanatory notes and asides in boxes, creating something like a flow chart scattered throughout the text. In a way, this was easier to follow than footnotes because I could see how the points linked and what exactly they linked to.

Wallace’s footnotes are at their most voluminous (and sometimes irritating) in “Authority and American Usage,” a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of American Usage that turns into a long explanation of prescriptivism and descriptivism. As something of a descriptivist myself (meaning I believe language evolves and usage guides need to follow that evolution), I got a little irritated at Wallace’s arguments for prescriptivism (meaning strict adherence to rules). And the footnotes inside footnotes, with increasingly small type, didn’t help win me over. But by the end of the essay, he’d landed on a position that’s not so different from my own, and his praise for Garner is based on Garner’s ability to straddle the two camps.

Other book reviews in the collection include the hilariously searing “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” in which he reviews John Updike’s Toward the End of Time. And then there’s “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” in which he considers the lure of sports memoirs and how they so often fail. I liked that one a lot. I probably would have appreciated “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” and “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” more if I were more familiar with Kafka and Dostoevsky.

Rounding out the collection are “Big Red Son” (on an awards ceremony and expo for porn movies) and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” (on watching the news with neighbors after 9/11). The first is entertaining but a little too long and the second is short and moving but not so very different from many 9/11 essays I’ve read. Both do show off Wallace’s ability to pick up on telling details, and together they show how he can get inside totally different worlds and give readers a sense of really being there.

This is an excellent collection, and it’s easy to see how DFW achieved his iconic status. I’ll certainly read his other collections at some point, but probably not soon. His chocolate mousse prose is a treat I don’t want often and only in limited quantities.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 10 Comments


hildWe don’t know much about Saint Hilda, or Hild, of Whitby. We know (from Bede) that she was born in 614, the second daughter of a prince of Elmet, who was poisoned when Hild was small. We know that she went to live at King Edwin’s court in York, and that she was baptized when she was thirteen, with King Edwin and all his court, in what would become York Minster. We know that later, at the age of thirty-three, she became a nun, and founded several monasteries, and was a huge force in helping to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, and that kings came to her for her wisdom and advice until she died.

Imagine: a tiny girl who was second daughter to a poisoned prince, building so much influence and power in the brutal seventh century in Britain, with the swirling patterns of Britons and Anglisc and Picts and Irish and Franks. How did it happen? Who must she have been, to make that happen?

Nicola Griffith’s novel Hild shows us how it might have been. It begins in Elmet when Hild is only three, and her mother Breguswith takes the reins once her husband is poisoned (“Quiet mouth, bright mind,” she tells her daughter.) From that moment, Hild learns to watch what’s around her, from the patterns of nature that tell about seasons and crops and flooding, to the patterns of human behavior that tell about love and anger and fear and desire. All of this goes to make her King Edwin’s seer, someone who is supposed to have the gift of prophecy when really she has the gift of the keenest intelligence in an age.

As the king’s seer, Hild is often alone. People fear her abilities: she’s a haegtes, a witch, even though she’s a child. It takes time for Hild to gather a misfit band of allies she can trust to tell her the truth and keep her safe: an Irish priest; a wealh slave; her sworn sister Begu; a small group of men who have seen her kill; her beloved foster-brother Cian. All other loyalties shift like the sands, but not these.

One of the most fascinating pieces of this book (Griffith uses the concept of warp and weft, so I might say fascinating threads) is the way Christianity is coming into Britain at this time. King Edwin and his court, including Hild, are worshipers of Woden at the beginning of the book, and the Christ is a god like any other, with his own peculiar ways. But Christianity is like a tide, coming in insistently, and Hild sees the pattern before others do. One of the most important things about it is that Christian priests can read: they can send messages no one can intercept or mangle; they can send a whole web of messages at the same time; information can go all over the island. Hild grasps this instantly. She insists that all her allies learn to read and write. She wants this power to be hers as well.

I admit that parts of this book were confusing, simply because the names were far worse than a Russian novel. Two Aethelrics. Aelthelfrith. Aethelburh. Eadfrith. Osfrith. Eanfrith. Eanflaed. Ealdwulf. Oswine. Oswiu. Osric. But! Once I accepted that I was not going to remember who everyone was, and just let some of that wash over me, this novel was unbelievably gripping. Hild was a fascinating character, keen as a peregrine, sharp as a blade, and still aching for companionship as any child would. The power struggles between kings (and between kings and bandits, and between kings and bishops, and between Hild and her own desire for power) were absolutely on point. The writing is beautiful, too, about nature and about the humans who inhabit it. This is some of the very best historical fiction I’ve read in an age, about an age I didn’t know well. Really, really recommended.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 8 Comments

The Boat Rocker

boat rockerI picked Ha Jin’s The Boat Rocker off the library shelf on a whim, something I rarely do these days. It turned out to be a short whirlwind of a book, exploring ideas of national identity, patriotism, free speech, fraud, literary merit, journalistic values, imperialism, censorship, family, and more in a packed space of just over 200 pages.

Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin is a reporter at the GNA, a small news agency that produces a Chinese-language website read by the Chinese diaspora around the world. Danlin’s fiery, principled exposés have elevated him in the eyes of his readers, and have exasperated Chinese officials. Danlin has recently become a naturalized US citizen, which he feels protects him from recriminations from the Chinese government, and his parents are retired, so, as he says, “they can’t hurt me much any more.”

But then his boss gives him an assignment: Danlin’s ex-wife, Yan Haili, has announced her forthcoming smash-hit bestselling novel, Love and Death in September, translated into thirty languages, movie deal forthcoming. Danlin knows that Haili’s writing is puerile and that this must be a fraud. How has she pulled it off? His investigation reveals a huge pack of lies, and powerful Chinese government backing for her literary stardom, trying to make Chinese cultural production look good.

But the more he writes about the scandal, despite the support from his readers, the worse things get for him. Are there no lengths to which Haili and her backers won’t go to make this book deal go through smoothly? Danlin clings stubbornly to his role as a voice for those who can’t speak up against the state, and he has less and less to lose as the book goes on.

One thing that’s interesting is that Danlin isn’t always a very sympathetic character. He has strong values about his journalism, certainly, and that’s admirable. But his attitudes towards women, his self-involvement, and his thin skin make him sometimes quite annoying. I really enjoyed the novel for the way it revealed Chinese culture — attitudes toward the government, for instance, or about family, or about censorship and the literary establishment. To see it from the perspective of an expatriate, however, someone who had rejected Chinese citizenship, and someone who had thoroughly mixed motives about his investigation of his ex-wife, was a bold move. It makes the novel much more nuanced than it might otherwise be.

Ha Jin has written at least ten other books, and I’ve never read or heard of any of them. Do any of you have any recommendations to make?

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | Leave a comment

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

This is written to you, my friends, because I feel led by the spirit to preach to you. I don’t mind if you call Spirit common sense, or desperate hope, or willful refusal to accept defeat. I don’t mind if you conclude that religion is cant and faith is a lie. I simply want to bear witness to the truth I see and the reality I know. And without white America wrestling with that truth and confronting these realities, we may not survive. To paraphrase the Bible, to whom much is given, much is required. And you, my friends, have been given so much. And the Lord knows, what wasn’t given, you simply took, and took, and took. But the time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.

The words above close out the “Call to Worship” that begins this short and powerful book by Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson is an ordained minister, a Georgetown professor, and a black man who has written lots of books on race and culture in America. This book, written after the election, calls on white Americans to grapple with our country’s legacy of white supremacy. It is a call for understanding and empathy.

Dyson calls the book a sermon. It’s not an academic paper that digs into the evidence of oppression, although he cites statistics once in a while. Instead, he relies on anecdote and imagery, raising an impassioned voice to call on white Americans to consider what it is like to be black in a country whose history is bound up in oppression of black people. The book is formatted like a worship service, with chapters titled, Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Invocation, Scripture Reading, and so on. But, as noted in the quote above, his goal is not to convert anyone to his religious faith. There’s little direct Bible teaching. But the feeling of the book is that of a rousing worship service meant to drive people to take action for the good of the world.

He tells stories—so many stories—of him and people he knows being pulled over by police officers and harangued for minor offences. He writes of the racial slurs he receives in his e-mail when he appears on TV calling out racism. Together, these stories and others help readers understand the anger behind the protests that occur whenever police officers (yet again) don’t get indicted for killing a black person.

Dyson also addresses whiteness and how white Americans attempt to deflect all discussion of race. He explores how pretending not to see race is no way to solve racism. Instead, it’s an evasion of our history. “The historical erasure of blackness strengthens this racially blind version of American history, makes it easier to make the argument that black folk never did a damn thing for the nation,” he writes.

I think my favorite chapter in the book is the one titled “The Plague of White Innocence,” where Dyson powerfully argues for patriotism, instead of nationalism. Nationalism, he writes, “is the uncritical celebration of one’s nation regardless of its moral or political virtue.” Patriotism, on the other hand, “is the belief in the best values of one’s country, and the pursuit of the best means to criticize those values.” In this chapter, he discusses white outrage at black protest, specifically that of Colin Kaepernick, who peacefully protested racism by refusing to stand during the national anthem at football games. The chapter “Our Own Worst Enemy?” takes down the arguments about black-on-black crime that seem to pop up whenever black people protest police brutality, and “Coptopia” takes a deep dive into the circumstances that lead to black people’s suspicion of the police.

As the book ends, Dyson writes,

Empathy must be cultivated. The practice of empathy means taking a moment to imagine how you might behave if you were in our positions. Do not tell us how we should act if we were you; imagine how you would act if you were us. Imagine living in a society where your white skin marks you for disgust, hate, and fear. Imagine that for many moments. Only when you see black folk as we are, and imagine yourselves as we have to live our lives, only then will the suffering stop, the hurt cease, the pain go away.

Dyson offers some specific suggestions for what white people can do, but I think this cultivation of empathy is among the most important. It’s on that foundation that other actions can be built. And this book is a valuable call to empathy. I recommend it.

Posted in Nonfiction | 5 Comments

History of Wolves

When the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced this week, the appearance of Emily Fridlund’s debut novel was perhaps the biggest surprise. I was only halfway through the book at the time, and although I liked more than some people seem to, I didn’t think it was worthy of the shortlist. And having finished it, my opinion still holds.

The History of Wolves is the story of a teenage girl named Madeline. She was brought up in a commune that eventually fell apart, and now she and her parents are alone on the isolated Minnesota property. Her parents are distant, and she’s left to her own devices a lot of the time.

In school, Madeline is also something of a misfit, interested in other misfits, especially her classmate Lily and her history teacher Mr. Grierson. But she’s mostly an observer, never really close to either of them, aside from the brief period when she works on a project about wolves for a history competition at Grierson’s behest. When Lily later accuses Grierson of making sexual advance, Madeline is even more isolated, with no one to talk to about any of it and no way to make sense of her feelings.

So all of that is the backdrop for the main story—that of Madeline’s relationship with a family that moves into a nearby lake house for the summer. Madeline immediately takes an interest in them. Patra, the mother, is young and doesn’t know anyone in the area. Her husband, Leo, is a scientist and scholar, and he is staying in the city to continue his work while Patra and their son sojourn at the lake. Four-year-old Paul is imaginative and playful. Patra is happy to have Madeline’s help looking after Paul for the summer.

As the story develops, we realize that something isn’t quite right about this family. Madeline, narrating the story as an adult, refers to a trial that happened later. As details accumulate, it becomes clear that Paul’s stomachaches and Patra’s obedience to Leo are signs of something more sinister.

Madeline tells this story from her adult perspective, and we also get glimpses of her life away from the lake and her family. She has a roommate, a boyfriend, and a job. She’s left the woods and the lake behind, even if it’s not absent from her thoughts.

Emily Fridlund uses this story to explore themes of isolation and culpability. How guilty can a person be for someone else’s crime? What does is mean when we want to do one thing and actually do something else? The trouble is, this book has too many threads, most of which remain undeveloped.

For example, Madeline’s being brought up in a failed commune would naturally be significant in shaping her character. We see that it turns her into a misfit within the community, and we see that the fracturing of the community has left her family fractured, too. But we learn very little about the actual community. I’d rather have spent more time exploring that than getting glimpses of Madeline’s adulthood, most of which add little to the story. Also undeveloped is the wolf imagery, which seems significant as the novel opens but is eventually dropped.

I appreciated that Fridlund didn’t want to spell out all of the ideas and connections between them. But I wish she’s dropped a few of her ideas entirely so she could develop the remaining ones more fully—or at least not distract readers from the more interesting threads. As it is, the novel feels unpolished, undisciplined, and a little baggy. It has potential, but it wouldn’t have made my shortlist.

Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 12 Comments


A man is walking, alone, looking for a woman. He doesn’t know if he’s on the right track, but he walks on anyway, smelling of embers and haunted by … something.

We meet Daniel, the narrator of Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, on this journey in short chapters that appear between the chapters that tell his main story—the story of his life in a little house that his father, John, built in a place called Elmet. There, Daniel and his sister, Cathy, and their father made their own kind of life, with its own rules. The children, ages 14 (Daniel) and 15 (Cathy) took lessons from a woman who lived nearby, but mostly they lived apart from the world. Cathy was fierce and strong, and Daniel was quieter and more cautious.

The book’s plot is straightforward enough, and although it takes some turns that I didn’t necessarily expect, everything that happens is hinted at strongly from Daniel’s narration. And the story takes on a lot of ideas regarding class and community, masculinity and femininity, and the place of violence in human nature and society. John is a fighter, and it is suggested that this is in his nature. But is it? He has a gentleness with his children. And others use his violence to their own ends, something he’s come to chafe at.

And then there’s the role of community. Price and the other landowners seem to not just own the land but to own people’s lives. And the community appears to have given in, as a neighbor named Ewart notes:

I don’t know folk round here like I used to. I can’t tell how they feel anymore, or how they think. Sometimes I think spirit’s dead and gone, but sometimes I think it’s still there, just resting its eyes. A lot of those here are sons and daughters of men that worked with me up at pit. So many passed away before their time. They drank too much and smoked too much and ate too much of this meat. We all did. But I do see something here of that old word. People are as poor now as they ever were, and as tired. And bringing people together of an evening is easier than keeping them apart. And by that same token, bringing a community back together is easier than setting people and families at odds. It’s just that that’s where all effort’s been this last ten years and more.

Perhaps because he’s outside the system, John sees a way to fix things by bringing people together. But it’s tenuous, and we’re left wondering whether Ewart is right that it’s easier to keep people together than apart. One individual, rightly or wrongly motivated, can burn the whole thing down.

Elmet’s conclusion is big and dramatic, but the book as a whole is not. I appreciated how Mozley kept her big ideas under the surface. I’m not convinced by all of the ideas in the book, but I’m interested in mulling them over. I suspect some readers will find the slow build and crashing ending to be frustrating, and there were some narrative shifts that were a bit too sudden. But, on the whole, I liked this book a lot.

So with only one book to go, History of Wolves, which no one seems to like much, Elmet snags the sixth spot on my shortlist, bumping Exit West. That breaks my heart a little because Exit West is so good. But this seemed fresher to me. After last year, it’s a pleasure to have more than six books that feel worthy of the shortlist!

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

Home Fire

Kamila Shamsie’s gut-punching update of the story of Antigone is all about competing loyalties. There’s loyalty to family, to country, to faith, to moral principles, to the law, to love. These loyalties are in tension, and each character balances those loyalties in different ways. Shamsie presents each of the main characters’ perspectives in turn, letting us see exactly what moves them all and experiencing the difficulty of finding an answer that will leave everyone whole.

Home Fire begins with Isma, newly arrived in America to pursue a PhD. Her sister, Aneeka, is back in London. Their brother Parvaiz, Aneeka’s twin, is in Raqqa, having been recruited into ISIS. A chance meeting brings Isma in contact with Eamonn, the son of the new British home secretary, Karamat Lone. Having been politically burned in his career before for being visibly Muslim, Karamat takes a hard line against ISIS and anyone affiliated with it or other Islamist terror groups. When Eamonn falls in love with Aneeka, the two families end up on a course toward disaster.

As you can see, this is a complex premise, with no clear and easy answers. Shamsie doesn’t ever pretend that ISIS is anything other than the evil that it is, but she allows readers to see how people get sucked into it and how wrenching that is for their families who are trying to live peaceful lives. She also shows how challenging it is for Muslims to live in the shadow of Islamist terrorism and the suspicion it puts them under. It’s very much a story of our time.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book is that all five of the main characters are given close attention so we can see their motivations and understand them as something more than a cutout object crafted to make a point. Some might argue as to how successful the characterizations are, but I found them effective. She might have cheated slightly with her decision to keep Parvaiz out of the fighting, but I’m not sure readers could have forgiven him if he’d done more than film atrocities (and, indeed, some readers probably won’t forgive him). And there are aspects of Aneeka that I think are intentionally left a little cloudy, making the ending devastating in its ambiguity.

The prose doesn’t necessarily dazzle in the manner of some of the others on the Booker longlist, but I think it is effective, particularly in the section devoted to Aneeka. It’s on my personal shortlist, and I’ll be looking for more of her books. If you’ve read any, which do you recommend?

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 5 Comments

Solar Bones

This novel by Mike McCormack is not really my kind of book. For one thing, it’s one long sentence. Actually, that’s the only thing. A book that’s just one long sentence would have to be pretty good not to irritate me. And it didn’t irritate me. I didn’t exactly fall in love with it, as so many others have done, but I did like it.

The book chronicles the thoughts of a man named Marcus Conway who is sitting in his kitchen in Ireland on All Souls’ Day looking back on his life. The stream-of-consciousness narration takes all the twists and turns that the human mind tends to think when just left to meander.

this is how the mind unravels in nonsense and rubbish

if given its head

the mind in repose, unspooling to infinity, slackening to these ridiculous musings which are too easily passed off as thought, these glib associations, mental echoes which reverb with our anxiety to stay wake and wise to the world or at least attentive to as much of its circumstances as we can grasp while

come to think of it

thinking of it now

now being thought

McCormack uses that keeps the book readable by using lots of short paragraphs and occasional fragments. You’re rarely confronted with a single wall of text, although there are no natural breaks in the narrative. When I needed to take a break had to make myself pay attention to when Marcus was turning to a new subject.

So what does Marcus think about? Most of his thoughts revolve around his work and his family, especially his wife and children. He’s an engineer, and he mulls over some of the projects he worked on. Mostly, though, he thinks about his two adult children and their mysterious lives. He also remembers when his wife, Mairead, was seriously ill and spent days in bed. The thoughts themselves aren’t especially profound. Marcus comes across as an ordinary man, but a decent one, who is doing his best in sometimes difficult circumstances.

When I read a book like this, I sometimes wonder what I would think of it if it were told in a more traditional, straightforward style. In the case of Solar Bones, the story on its own has some genuinely moving moments. I also liked Marcus’s bafflement at his kids’ choices, which might have been addressed more deeply in a traditional story because they’re a chief source of conflict in this mostly gentle book. But Marcus’s ordinary nature might for a dull book. Getting into his head and following his thoughts moment by moment makes him interesting. Plus, the way McCormack engineers his sentence, creating a single chain of ideas, seems fitting for a book about an engineer.

I wouldn’t want to read books like this all the time. My preference is still for a more traditional style. But this is a successful example of how stream-of-consciousness taken to an extreme can be successful. I didn’t love it, but I’d be happy to see it on the Booker shortlist.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 begins with the disappearance of a teenage girl named Becky who was with her family spending the winter holidays in a small English town. From that premise, you might think you know what to expect. You’re probably wrong.

McGregor doesn’t focus on the investigation, the suspects, or Becky’s history, although all of those elements appear. Instead, he dwells on everyday life in the town and how it continues to go on, season after season, year after year. People think and worry about what happened to Becky, but that tragedy is just one of many events. Over the years, people are born, people die, relationships begin and end, Becky’s peers go off to university and return. Life continues.

I’ve admired Jon McGregor’s writing ever since I read Even the Dogs. His short story collection is one of my favorites. He always writes well, and he tends to look at familiar narratives from a new angle. He takes that to an extreme in Reservoir 13, and I found it absolutely hypnotic.

Each of the book’s 13 chapters begins with the dawn of a new year. Here’s the opening of chapter 8:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks in the rain, and thunder in the next valley. The rain broke over the hill like a wave and blew straight into people’s faces. The river was high an thick and there were grayling in number feeding on the caddis larvae and shrimps. In the morning Ian Dowsett was out with a new box of flies and having a job to keep his footing in the current as he dropped the weighted nymphs into the water. Susanna’s ex-husband appeared again, and this time the altercation was seen.

The structure of the book creates a sense of time’s cyclical nature, which McGregor emphasizes by making note of the changing seasons and the village rituals. And those cycles are echoed in many of the book’s characters, with certain routines happening again and again, but with variation from year to year. The feeling is that everything both stays the same always and keeps changing always. And as I think about it, that’s kind of how life is. We continue with the same routines until something happens to shake us out of it. It’s not always possible to know what that routine-shaking event will be, and that event won’t be the same for everyone.

The book’s massive number of characters does pose a challenge. I found myself wishing I’d kept notes on who was who because I kept forgetting. And by the time I realized how helpful a list would be, it felt like it was too late to start. So I settled into the idea that the book is not so much about each individual character’s journey but about the village as a whole. Looking at the village as a whole, we see how little really does change. All of the instability exists at the individual level. I’m not sure what to make of that, but the tension is interesting to ponder.

With four Booker contenders left to read, I’m putting this at the top of my personal shortlist. It’s not a book I’d expect everyone to love, but it totally worked for me.

I received an e-galley of this novel for review consideration via Edelweiss.


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